There goes the neighborhood, and its about time

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When I moved to Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood 10 years ago, it was a lot of things, but particularly Jewish wasn’t one of them. Since then, the area’s reputation has grown. Temescal Alley, a cluster of uber-hip shops that regularly appears in national publications as the premium example of what’s so cool about Oakland, is there. And the neighborhood’s stretch of Telegraph Avenue has been dubbed another “Gourmet Ghetto.”

But in terms of Jewish character, the general gestalt of the neighborhood has not changed, even with the addition of Beauty’s Bagels on the fringe of Temescal a few years ago.

Now it seems as if change has come. After 10 years, and with no effort at all on my part, my block in Oakland is looking more Jewy all the time. In fact, it may have started at my house.

Just over a year ago, an Orthodox man from Berkeley was looking for a place to store his kosher winemaking operation. My husband, Paulie, an occasional home brewer himself, saw the post on an email list for East Bay Jewish men and reached out, offering some of our basement space.

The winemaker (who asked to remain nameless, even though his operation is perfectly legal because he doesn’t sell his wine) doesn’t mind that we don’t have a kosher kitchen, because he doesn’t use it. His first harvest, aged in nine carboys — like water-cooler jugs, but for brewers — is ready to be bottled, 45 gallons in all. He recently upped the ante by bringing more than 180 gallons in three full-size barrels to our basement. They’re marked with Orthodox Union tape, and Paulie and I are not allowed to touch them. If we’re home when the winemaker comes over, he allows us a sample, but to keep the kosher laws he has to be the one drawing it from the barrel.

His rent payment is wine.

While our basement kosher winery is mostly a secret (except to our neighbors), it also has been a source of pride and amusement. One Sunday, I pulled into my driveway to find a Hassidic man there. I have met and worked with plenty of Hassidim over the years, but they aren’t usually standing in my driveway. I quickly realized, of course, that he was there to help with the wine.

It’s not only the winery that has brought Yiddishkeit to my block. During the summer, we learned that a family two doors down was moving out. Their house remained empty for a while, and then we heard Moishe House was moving in.

For those who don’t know, Moishe House runs subsidized houses around the world, where Jewish 20-something residents put on programming for their peers. From Shabbat dinners to meditation to yoga, it’s up to the residents to decide what will draw Jews in their age group. The Bay Area has five Moishe Houses — three in San Francisco, including one for Russian-speaking émigrés, one in Palo Alto, and the one on my block, relocated from the Berkeley Hills.

There is no sign, only a doormat, designating it as such. While Paulie and I are well beyond the organization’s target audience, we love that it’s in the neighborhood. Paulie was especially moved one night when, riding by on his bike, he heard a cacophony of voices singing a niggun that spilled out of the windows onto the street. We attended the first Shabbat dinner and were definitely the oldest in attendance. Sometimes we joke that we are Moishe House East, or The Annex.

This bond came into sharp focus on a recent Sunday afternoon, when we were sitting shiva for my mother-in-law. We put a sign on the unlocked door, telling guests to let themselves in. A young woman we didn’t know entered. No doubt she saw the Jewish prayer flags and mezuzah and thought she was at Moishe House, which was holding a chanukat habayit, or housewarming, at the same time. She got the addresses confused, walking in on a bunch of middle-age Jewish mourners instead.

We all had a good laugh when we told her the Moishe House was two doors down and sent her on her way, bringing smiles to our faces on an otherwise pretty somber day.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."